Have you ever felt this way? Super inspired and excited, but almost to the point where you are overwhelmed and anxious? I’m kind of in this mindset where I feel like I want to take on the world. It’s a bit of my manic side. But I just can’t help it. Yesterday I attended the “This Is Who I Am Project” roundtable discussion at the 519 Community Centre in Toronto. The event consisted of a panel of professional speakers who talked about important issues that impact the mental health of their community. I was so moved and fascinated by their words and stories. I felt like I was truly meant to attend this event. It really fit with the mission of this blog/initiative, which is to shed light on a comprehensive picture of mental health from all angles – not just mine.
At the panel, we heard from a variety of people – Rebecca Shields, the CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association for York Region and South Simcoe. This organization supports the resiliency and recovery of people with mental illness. They have some AMAZING programs and it is a national organization, so if you are Canadian, check it out!
We also heard from Sookie Bardwell and Frank Colosimo, both awesome people who work at the Egale Canada Human Rights Trust. They are a national organization that promotes lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans (LGBT) human rights through research, education and community engagement. Their vision is “a Canada, and ultimately a world, without homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and all other forms of oppression so that every person can achieve their full potential, free from hatred and bias.” Which I love.
We also heard from Aisha Fairclough, a TV producer, image maker and body image activist. She is the co -founder of Fat In the City lifestyle blog and the Body Confidence Canada Awards. Finally, last but not least, we heard from Jill Andrew, who also co-founded Fat in the City and the BCCAs. She is also a TDSB (Toronto District School Board) Student Equity Program Advisor.
What did I learn from this panel? So so much. But here are a few key insights. I have to say that not all of these words and specific phrases are mine but I just took a jumble of notes of key words I heard that really struck me as important to be shared and I can’t remember who said what necessarily. I tried to sum it all up as best as I could.
- I need to work hard to take a stand and create safer spaces for all people.
As a white straight woman with a mental illness and some body image issues, I can understand some of what other people from other backgrounds experience in regards to mental health issues. However, there are so many factors that influence mental health that I will never personally experience – racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism. As a mental health advocate, I need to do my best to help these stories be seen and heard in the mainstream. At the workshop, I heard stories about how gender norms and body standards for people growing up in certain cultures meant that people needed to hide who they were, living in fear and isolation and anxiety. Growing up in antagonistic environments. They had to silence who they were, what they wanted to do and who they wanted to be. And the systems in place made them feel that way, that who they were at the core of their being was wrong. It made them engage in self-policing so that they felt like they could belong and fit expectations in a society that devalues race, gender identity and expression. They had to self edit and exist in the world in such a way so they wouldn’t be criticized or bullied. Many of the panelists experienced exclusion because of their bodies, because of oppressive beauty ideals imposed upon them by their peers. One panelist remarked that at times, she felt too black or not black enough. That there were labels and boxes that people tried to fit them in that didn’t work for them. That they were told they were too much at times, whether literally and physically, or in personality. Some of the panelists also had physical health problems and negotiating and mitigating their identity through sickness contributed even further to mental health issues. You can only imagine how all of this might lower self-esteem, depression, hopelessness, negative self-talk, even suicidal thoughts or other severe symptoms of mental illness.That when you want to try to be as little as possible so you don’t take up space, this could lead to eating disorders too.
We need to be having conversations about these experiences. We need all people to feel comfortable to come forward and share. Sharing your mental health story when you are not ready can be traumatic. But sharing can also shift the narrative away from stigma to owning our story. Sometimes it feels like people don’t see you. It is important to see ourselves and our stories int he public so you know you aren’t the only one. We need to tell stories of strength and resilience. Not just my story, a white woman with bipolar disorder. But black people, trans people, gay men, people with disabilities, people with chronic illness, EVERYONE.
We need to see mental health as less of black and white and more of a spectrum. There isn’t an “us” and a “them”. Everyone has experienced mental health issues of some sort and will again. To reduce the stigma, we need to talk about it. We need to see it as a real health problem. We need to normalize it. Increase it’s visibility in the media. We need to name it! We can never stop advocating for ourselves, fighting for ourselves. We need diverse representations in mental health advocacy especially. Not just white young faces.
2. Having a support system is crucial to mental well-being.
Many of the panelists admitted that their parents were not supportive when they came out and some did not come to terms with it for years, and even still have issues at times when it comes to serious topics like marriage or children. Beyond that, many people in the LGBTQ community do not have adequate access to medical or emotional support in our healthcare systems. Rebecca mentioned that many people wait between 4 to even 20 years to seek mental health treatment, but that the longer you wait, it will take longer to treat. In regards to mental health, in some cases, cultural barriers prevented people from seeking mental health support. In other cases, people in the LGBTQ are scared to seek support because they have faced discrimination and even abuse by medical professionals. Our support systems need to better understand how to support the needs of diverse communities. Panelists described walking around in a cloud, pretending things are okay while dying inside. Not knowing who you can trust to share your story with. Luckily, Rebecca mentioned that mental health is increasingly being put in the spotlight. There is a national dialogue. It is on the agenda. But there is a lot of work to do. Only 7% of healthcare spending is on mental health. Rebecca also mentioned that they are trying to encourage the government to include people in strategy decisions who are actually affected by these strategies. Also including them in the design of programs meant for them. This might help in creating person-centred care that supports each individual and doesn’t try to squish them into boxes. We also need diverse medical practitioners who look like people being served.
3. Everyone deserves treatment, no matter who they are or how they behave.
Something that Jill said really resonated with me. She said that everyone should be treated the same and not just if they act like someone who we deem to be “good”. We need empathy for ALL people, especially youth. The quiet girl in the corner may need help, but what about the girl who has outbursts or is loud? They might also be hurting inside but often these kids, especially young black kids, are expelled faster before actually being treated. This is often extended into services for adults. For example, someone might be ousted from a program because they didn’t attend three meetings in a row. But there might have been a very valid reason for not attending. It also reminded me of a huge issue I have with care for people who are homeless. A lot of homeless shelters don’t allow people in who are intoxicated, but a lot of people who need these services have addiction issues. They are no less deserving of help because of this.
4. We need to listen to everyone.
Not just when they are protesting in a manner that is acceptable to you. An audience member at the panel brought up a great point – people are seen differently and listened to differently when they are mad or are emotional. It is so often that people have to apologize for being passionate or that their words are seen as less valid. To enact change, we need to have conversations that might scare you, that might make you uncomfortable.
5. We need to do more and act more.
Many of the panelists said that they wished that growing up, events like the one I had attended had existed – that it was incredible that people were actually congregating and discussing social justice issues. I agree – I think we need to harness this energy and continue these conversations. That’s what I plan on doing. I spoke to a few of the panelists at the event, the organizer Michelle and some of the volunteers, and I will be profiling them in the coming weeks so they can further share their stories I want to elaborate and expand upon all of the points in this article and explore the nuances behind each one. And I will be looking for other people to share their stories as well. Please, if you have an experience with mental health in some way, I would love to use my platform to tell it. It can be anonymous or not. Really, I just want to raise awareness as much as I can so mental health is seen as a priority. I cannot be quiet about this anymore.